Jack Ross will have been boosted by the transfer window and how that has strengthened his hand to push on for promotion this season. At the same time, the Black Cats boss has revealed that the health of the squad is perhaps better than it’s been all season. Those two factors will be key as Sunderland enter the final few months of a gruelling end to the campaign.
Today, Oxford provide a tough test for Sunderland’s reformed side. A week or so integrating the new players will undoubtedly have helped and, coming off the back of three points and a clean sheet last weekend, Ross will be keen to maintain momentum this afternoon.
The Gaffer says...
It’s the healthiest we’ve been as a squad really. There’s probably been one or two exceptions where we’ve had a full squad, but we’ve always carried injuries. There is absolute competition for places at the moment, which is what you want.
I think players understand that they have to be at it all the time and in training, and having performance levels in games that keeps them in the team. What it’ll allow us to do is be a bit more flexible in our approach to games as well.
If you look [at Oxford] in a couple of their recent home games they’ve played against the likes of Portsmouth and Barnsley they’ve produced good results, so that is another indicator of how good a team that they are, that they can be on their day.
It was a difficult match when we played them at home, obviously made even more difficult by the fact we were a man short for large parts of it, but we know that we have to play well to win the game on Saturday.
I think a lot of the away games this season have felt like cup ties is maybe the best way to describe it. I think a lot of the time that has resulted in the opposing team’s biggest crowd of the season - I gather that will be the same on Saturday. We’ve came through a lot of them well, but every single away game we play between now and the end of the season will be exactly the same.
As I mentioned in terms of where the squad is at health wise and numbers wise, I would think we’re in the best possible place.
The state of play...
Sunderland moved into fourth place with last weekend’s win over Wimbledon, as Portsmouth dropped points against Doncaster and Charlton lost at Fleetwood. Wins for Barnsley and Luton cemented their positions in the top spots, but Sunderland have games in hand to draw level with leaders Luton.
Oxford, on the other hand, lie in 21st position, having won just once in their last eight league games. However, that victory was against Portsmouth in mid-January and the U’s followed up with a 2-2 draw against Barnsley during their last home game. Karl Robinson will fancy that form carrying them to another result in front of their fans today.
Jack Ross has hailed the depth of a fully fit squad and has some tough selections to make today. The debuts of Grant Leadbitter and Lewis Morgan will have given the gaffer food for thought, whilst hopes are high that new striker, Will Grigg, will make is own debut at the Kassam Stadium today.
Jon McLaughin will keep his place as Sunderland’s No.1 and it’s likely that first choice full backs Adam Matthews and Reece James will play today. In the middle, Jimmy Dunne has made a positive impression since his loan move from Premier League side Burnley, whilst both Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin have been solid throughout this season. Will Ross keep faith the the Flanagan-Dunne partnership of recent weeks or bring Baldwin back in to keep his players fresh?
In midfield, perhaps the biggest challenges lie for team selection. Dylan McGeouch has performed well when called upon, Lee Cattermole had a great start to the season and young Bali Mumba has emerged this season as a serious talent. Yet it is likely that Max Power and returning Sunderland star Grant Leadbitter will occupy the holding midfield places today.
Ahead of them, is there now a case for a third, more attacking midfielder? Both George Honeyman and Luke O’Nien, released from his emergency right-back duties, can be highly effective in linking midfield with the attack.
Aiden McGeady continues to be Sunderland’s main source of creative and provides a strong goal threat. Jack Ross now has an abundance of attacking options available to him, though.
Chris Maguire, the former Oxford forward, has long been a regular in the side this season, but his place has come under threat in recent weeks. Lynden Gooch, who missed the Wimbledon game due to the birth of his son, will be keen to get back into action today. Both players may find it tough to walk back in, such was the impressive debut of Lewis Morgan last week. Jack Ross has spoken highly of the Scottish winger and their relationship has been well documented. St Mirren stormed the Scottish Championship due in large part to Morgan’s involvement and it’s likely Ross would seek to build around him in similar fashion at Sunderland.
Duncan Watmore and new loan signing Kazaiah Sterling offer further options, amongst a forward line now bolstered by the return to fitness of Charlie Wyke and new signing Will Grigg. Both players know where the goal is at this level - Wyke scored 22 goals in 56 appearances for Bradford in 2017-18, whilst Grigg has 72 goals in 170 appearances for Wigan and MK Dons.
Is Ross going to stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation, or perhaps make slight amendments to move into a more defined 4-3-3 line-up? Could he be tempted to play two strikers? Or would he be open to bringing back his three-at-the-back formation with wingbacks? The personnel are clearly now available to not only tinker with the starting XI but change systems and tactics from game to game.
The view from the Home dressing room...
Despite sitting in the relegation zone on goal difference, Oxford are in the middle of a four-game run at home against League One promotion contenders. After beating Portsmouth and drawing with Barnsley, Sunderland are the next vistors to the Kassam Stadium today.
Manager Karl Robinson is hoping that loanee Marcus Browne can make his return from injury. The West Ham forward burst on to the scene at the start of the season, scoring seven goals. Former Sunderland loanee Jerome Sinclair will also be keen to play today and perhaps remind Jack Ross what he gave up during the January window.
The Oxford boss is expecting an intense atmosphere, with over 10,000 fans expected and goes into the clash full of confidence:
There’s an edginess around the place at the moment. You tend to find it’s not a bad thing. I felt it before Portsmouth and some other games.
Tackles are going in during training, which I like. People might find that quite (strange), but there’s an aggression in training. We can’t switch it on and off. I think people have to train to their maximum.
Sunderland have got some unbelievable players, but every team is beatable. They’re not invincible, previous results tell you that, so we’ve got to make sure we go into it positively and the players and fans stick together. We are a unified group who will go in to the game at 3 o’clock together, and help each other all game.
Our objective is to put another defeat on their record and more importantly win the game for ourselves, but we know it is going to be one of the hardest challenges of the year against a very talented team with match winners all over the pitch.
That’s a challenge we pride ourselves on rising to. We feel we have performed well against the top sides, and that’s what we have to continue to do this weekend.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
Around 1,800 tickets have been sold as Sunderland travel en masse to another away fixture.
For those unable to attend, audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 2pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website.
The game is also available via the Match Pass stream for domestic and international supporters. Full details can be found on SAFC.com.
We’ll also be providing live commentary via our Twitter page and, after the game, there’ll be a match report and player ratings article on the site - so keep an eye out for that.